Dancers, Ballet Out of Step in Pas de Deux

On strike or locked out? Washington Ballet dancers, embroiled in a labor dispute, picketed Warner Theatre last week.
On strike or locked out? Washington Ballet dancers, embroiled in a labor dispute, picketed Warner Theatre last week. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

A week has gone by since the Washington Ballet began canceling "Nutcracker" performances, a move that ultimately led to scratching all the remaining shows. What is being called the "nuclear option" -- shutting down the profitable "Nutcracker" -- has led only to further conflict and confusion.

The dispute over whether the dancers had declared a strike last week (management's view) or were locked out by management (as the dancers claim) has been given a new twist. For the past two days, when the dancers have shown up for their previously scheduled rehearsals, they have been turned away by Artistic Director Septime Webre.

The Washington Ballet is the city's oldest and best-known dance group. Webre, brought in seven years ago to bring new life to the ballet, has had some success, but this month's labor dispute has threatened to undo that.

Money is not the primary issue. The thorny questions involve how much control Webre should have. Can he hire and fire without restrictions? Can he change the size of the company? Should there be limits on how he conducts rehearsals to prevent injuries? Can he cast students from the Washington School of Ballet in productions anytime he likes?

On Tuesday, Webre seemed happy to see the dancers, but he said he was not prepared for them even though the rehearsal had long been scheduled, according to dancer Luis Torres. There was confusion over whether there would be rehearsals Wednesday.

When the dancers arrived Wednesday at the ballet's studio on Wisconsin Avenue, Webre read to them from a letter Executive Director Jason Palmquist had sent to the union last Friday. The letter stated, in part, "We will advise you as to what if any rehearsal obligations the dancers will be expected to fulfill in light of the consequences of the now-canceled 'Nutcracker' run."

Regardless of the scheduling confusion, that letter, Webre said, effectively canceled rehearsals until January. After reading the letter, Webre told the dancers it was a "very heartbreaking situation," Torres said. But the dancers left feeling confused.

"I really don't understand what they're trying to do, because it makes no sense to me," Torres said. "It almost felt rehearsed. When someone asks a question you don't expect them to hand you a letter. It was a different mood than the day before, when he was excited to see that we wanted to rehearse. It was like Jason was calling the shots."

"I was certainly glad to see them," Webre said Wednesday night, "but it surprised me that they were there because rehearsals had been canceled."

Webre added that he hopes to resume rehearsals on Jan. 3 "so that we can get back to the business of making art."

For union officials, the scrapped rehearsals are one more symptom of deeper communication problems. "We're not on strike. We're doing business as normal," said Eleni Kallas, local representative of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the dancers union. "Our dancers have fulfilled every job obligation that has not been canceled. The ballet has been in denial from Day One, in denial that they have a problem, in denial that they need to change and in denial now that they have locked us out."

Ballet officials say they will resume contract talks with AGMA in January. Until then, they will be trying to figure out how much money they lost by dropping the last 10 days of "The Nutcracker's" three-week run. The Christmas "Nutcracker" accounts for more than half the troupe's annual revenue. Roughly $780,000 will be refunded to ticket holders.

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